' Cinema Romantico: Superman Returns' Frank Langella Problem

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Superman Returns' Frank Langella Problem

Aside from Parker Posey, who injected off-kilter levity to such a self-serious movie, I was generally indifferent to “Superman Returns.” It was just one of those movies that kind of me makes me…….zzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Whoops! Dozed off for a second! My bad! What was I saying? Indifferent. Right. I was generally indifferent to “Superman Returns” aside from one detail that left me so irate I wanted to storm out to the lobby and buy a box of Junior Mints just so I could hurl them one-by-one at the screen (if, of course, I hadn’t already dozed off). I’m talking about Frank Langella.


What in the name of Walter Burns is Frank Langella doing in “Superman Returns”? Walter Burns is the famed cinematic newspaper editor brought to life in “The Front Page” – both in the 1931 original and the Billy Wilder remake – and most memorably by Cary Grant in the masterful “His Girl Friday.” Burns is the archetypal movie newspaper man. He charges hard and talks fast. In his original 1940 “His Girl Friday” review for The New York Times, Frank Nugent stated that it “shakes you madly, bellowing hoarsely.” He was talking about the film itself but may as well have been talking about the newspaper editor archetype.

Of the more recent newspaper movie men the most memorable was likely J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson in "Spiderman", the cigar chomping blowhard editor of The Daily Bugle who was only interested in the heroic title character in terms of selling papers. Simmons, to put it mildly, was off the hook, gobbling up all the scenery in a 200 block radius. Simmons’ work, in fact, made me most excited to see what Frank Langella could do with the part of Perry White, editor at The Daily Planet, in Bryan Singer’s 2006 “Superman Returns.”

So imagine my surprise when Langella decided to take things down a couple notches, speak at a middle of the road pace, and, oddly, go sans cigar. The esteemed Roger Ebert wrote that the character "comes across less like a curmudgeon, more like an efficient manager."

I’m all for playing against type……up to a point. There are, after all, certain types that become archetypal for a reason. The Police Chief asks for your badge and gun. The Manic Pixie Dream Girl changes your life. Sienna Miller smokes and drinks scotch at the same time (she does smoke and drink scotch at the same time in every movie, right?). The Newspaper Editor chomps on cigars and barks and is eternally irritated.

Consider this sequence. Langella's voice is so calm, nurturing, as if he's a sage-like journalism instructor. He tells ace reporter Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), in regards to her Pulitzer Prize winning celebration, "this is your night. You enjoy it." This is your night?! You enjoy it?! Why is he so...so...happy?! THE NEWSPAPER EDITOR ISN'T SUPPOSED TO BE HAPPY!

Even in this scene where he is giving the ground troops orders he's so in control. He's issuing orders, not growling commands. He's offering constructive conceits, not barbarous insults. Why even when he does finally raise his voice it's still the most polite raising of a voice you've ever heard. And his hands...his hands are noticeably empty, curiously devoid of any wrapped up tobacco leaves.

Jackie Cooper smoked in 1978.
In the 1978 original "Superman", Jackie Cooper played Perry White as the archetype. He barked. He was irritated. He smoked a cigar. What gave?

But then I thought, well, maybe Perry White, the real Perry White of the comic book, is not supposed to be the archetype of the movie newspaper man. After all, my comic book knowledge is extremely limited. So I did a little investigative journalism of my own. It took me roughly 17 seconds to learn he "is an archetypal image of the tough, irascible but fair-minded boss." And that he is "a tough, cigar-smoking boss." Ah ha! He DOES smoke a cigar! I knew it! Where was the cigar, Langella?! HUH?! WHERE WAS IT???!!!

In Zack Snyder's crack at the story of Superman, "Man of Steel", released into theaters nationwide tomorrow, Laurence Fishburne is set to play Perry White. If the movie gets anything right - anything at all - please, for the love of God, let Laurence Fishburne smoke a cigar.

He was on the cover of Cigar Aficionado! He knows how to smoke! Let him!

2 comments:

Alex Withrow said...

Love this post. Sadly, no cigar for Fishburne in Man of Steel. If anything he was as compassionate as Langella. Kind of a wasted character.

Nick Prigge said...

This will be included in my review going up tomorrow but I think Fishburne's Perry White DOES smoke cigars. I think he just chooses to wait until after work to indulge in one. Langella struck me as someone who didn't smoke cigars at all.

But you're right, his character only seemed to be around to allow for some sort of emotional connection to Metropolis citizens during the requisite destruction scene at the end.